Taming Tongues of Fire in the Book of Acts

When we read the book of Acts, we encounter a distinct movement away from the egalitarian vision of Jesus and even Paul, down the path toward Constantine and the religion of an empire. This shift comes into focus when we compare Acts to the pagan Felix Minutious, who criticized Christianity in the third century on a number of counts. In a presentation today at the Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? conference by the Westar Institute, Shelly Matthews, author of Acts of the Apostles: Taming Tongues of Fire (Sheffield, forthcoming), used Felix as a key to explore the social criticisms to which the author of Acts responded.

Pagan Criticism of Christians

Felix, though writing around a century later than Acts, captures well the sentiments of Greco-Roman civil society toward Christians. Among other things, Felix describes Christians as the “dregs of society,” made up of gullible women and riff-raff whispering in corners. He found it shocking that they worshiped a criminal, which was what crucifixion represented. He described them as worse even than the Jews – who were themselves viewed as rebellious rabble rousers – because at least the Jews worshiped in public places and respectable temples.

Luke is often portrayed as friendly to women, but Luke’s treatment of women is a good test case in demonstrating how he responds to criticism like that of Felix. Luke generally places intelligent women in his narrative, and even quotes Hebrew scriptures that suggest women are important to the Jesus-following movement. However, they rarely speak and are often relegated off stage. Luke does just enough to show that the women in the Jesus movement are not “gullible” but are in fact respectable women. He stops short of showing them in positions of actual power in the movement.

Shelly Matthews

Shelly Matthews

What about the claim that Christians comes from the “dregs” of society? Luke answers this critique by highlighting how many “friends in high places” Christians possess, especially key Christian leaders like Peter and Paul. In Acts 13 he even goes so far as to say the proconsul, a man who occupied an incredibly high position in Roman civil society, was a friend of Christians! This would have been difficult, if not impossible.

Then there’s the claim of secretiveness. This theme emerges repeatedly in pagan discourse about Christians. Worship in Roman society, properly carried out, was public and took place in temples. Outsiders wondered what Christians were up to, and heard rumors that whatever it was, was improper. By way of response, Luke places Peter and Paul in public spaces (mostly synagogues) where in fact they attempt to speak and are often silenced by people who are concerned for their safety. This portrayal of Paul in particular is contradictory to Paul’s own voice in his letters, where he admits to being a poor orator who struggled to debate with competing missionaries. In Acts, Paul demonstrates great prowess in oration. He is articulate and convincing. Where Paul privileges foolishness as the power of God, Acts is suspiciously drawn to portray Christians as powerful and impressive – ideal Roman citizens who could handle debate in the public square.

Ironically, Paul and Felix Minucious are two sides of the same coin. Their descriptions of Christians are virtually the same, but from positive and negative perspectives respectively. Acts is the departure from these complementary views.

“Christians Aren’t Like Jews”
Luke’s Attempt at Christian Public Relations

Another important task faced by Luke was to distance Jesus followers from Jews, who in the second century were embroiled in rebellion against the Roman Empire. It was neither safe nor prudent to be identified with Jews, yet Jesus followers could not deny a connection with Judaism. Luke solves this problem by distinguishing Jesus followers from “non-believing” Jews, that is, Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. However, this was a complicated matter because Greco-Roman culture did not simply dismiss Jews or Judaism outright. On the one hand, the Jews were rebels, but on the other, the antiquity of their religion was a source of great cultural capital. Luke seizes on both aspects in an ingenious way, a way that would have long-term consequences for Jewish-Christian relations.

Luke describes non-believing Jews as essentially functioning by mob rule, prone to violence, and rebellious. By contrast, Jesus followers embody the fulfillment of Jewish scriptures. They are the hope and wish of the scriptures. Non-believing Jews bear the weight of negative stereotypes, while Jesus followers appropriate positive stereotypes. In ancient rhetoric, repetition indicated the importance of a point; Luke provides ample repetition of these themes throughout the book of Acts.

Was there any truth to Luke’s claims that Jews acted violently toward Jesus-followers? Perhaps there was violence, and Shelly does not deny that possibility. The troubling point in Luke’s narrative is not so much that the claims of violence are inaccurate; rather, this is the only violence that appears in the book. We know Jesus was killed as a criminal by the ruling Roman government. We know the empire engaged in terribly violent action against Jews and Christians alike. Roman violence is virtually non-existent in the book of Acts, however, leaving the Jews as the primary violent force, surely not an accurate picture of the realities of the times. For Luke, the concept of divine provenance was no longer in play; God would not redeem the Jews unless they repented. Repentance in Judaism meant a return to the Law, but to Luke, it meant conversion.

The Revealing Story of Pentecost

One of the greatest challenges faced by Luke is the claim that Christians possessed the divine spirit. Spirit churches are not orderly. Think of the modern Pentecostal church – one is “slain by the spirit.” This threatens the orderly account Luke sought to provide his patron. Yet Luke did not seem to be able to just ignore this teaching, so what he does instead is try to contain it.

When we look at the Pentecost story, we see that the speech of the Spirit is not gibberish, not glossolalia in the modern sense of a unique language. Rather, when people possessed of the Spirit speak, they can be understood widely. This is the language of reason and debate, and thus respectable in the public sphere – something good Roman citizens would do. Luke also “genders the space” by privileging male voices: Peter and 11 apostles stand together and interpret the event for passersby, after having been forewarned by the risen Christ to expect the coming of the Spirit.

It is interesting that Luke claims everyone receives the Spirit, yet we don’t ever hear them speak. Luke promises an egalitarian vision in Acts 2:17b-18, where he quotes Joel saying the spirit will be poured out on everyone, but he does not fulfill it. For that, we must turn instead to Paul, Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”